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Political ads bring windfall for local broadcasters

The Times-Tribune

The biggest winners in the election might not have been the candidates with the most votes and their supporters.

They had to raise and spend a lot of money.

A lot of the money went to the group that might be the real winners: local broadcasters, especially television stations, whose air time was a highly prized commodity most of the year.

Candidates, political parties and issues groups poured a record of more than $21.3 million into advertising on the television stations and cable companies that serve Northeast Pennsylvania. That was even more than the $20.9 million spent in 2008, a presidential election year when TV spending normally peaks.

The TV stations and cable companies earned about 85 percent of the $21.3 million, or more than $18.1 million, after campaign media consultants took their 15 percent cut. The more than 92,000 commercials they aired represented more than 4.5 weeks’ worth of air time, still far below the 109,000 commercials aired in 2008.

The local figures were inflated somewhat this year by a series of competitive state legislative and congressional races and the spending of outside issues groups that were not around two years ago. The outside groups were unleashed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to funnel unlimited amounts of money into campaigns.

Efforts to reach the general managers of the local television stations were unsuccessful.

Craig Holman, the legislative lobbyist for Public Citizen, a public-interest watchdog group, said the outside interest groups pushed spending to record levels for congressional races nationwide, but the overall spending record here compared to 2008 was unusual.

“Nationwide, it (overall campaign spending) didn’t quite match what was spent in the presidential election, though it got very close,” Mr. Holman said.

Across the country, about $4 billion was spent on political campaigns, compared to $5 billion in 2008.

“This is a horrible way to run a democracy and for several different reasons,” Mr. Holman said.

Political commercials that air for 15 or 30 seconds contain hardly any “useful information” and are usually full of attacks based on “sheer rumors or exaggerating some problem that happened.”

“These are personality oriented, targeting a candidate for being unfit to serve in office for a character defect, as opposed to what the candidates or parties or political groups stand for and represent,” Mr. Holman said. “They’re highly misleading.”

The misleading commercials are coupled with the spending by the outside issue groups, many of which do not have to disclose their donors, he said. Outside groups spent almost $5.8 million of the $21.3 million in Northeast Pennsylvania.

“The outside spending was actually secret slush fund money financed largely by corporations that weren’t disclosing who’s paying for these ads,” Mr. Holman said. “The big winner here is the broadcasters. They make a fortune, a killing out of this. And they’re the only ones that make a killing out of this.”

Mr. Holman said broadcasters should be required to provide free air time to candidates, but the National Association of Broadcasters is “a huge gorilla” that fights such efforts.

“They’re the major opponent,” he said. “The bill (to provide free air time) gets introduced almost every congressional session and goes nowhere.”

Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, said mandated free air time is unnecessary because many stations offer free air time through political coverage, on-air interviews or candidate debates. Broadcasters are also required by law to offer an approximately 30 percent discount on advertising to candidates, he said.

“They can do what they want with the advertising,” he said. “We don’t like the mudslinging any more than the public likes it, but we are barred from making any censoring or any edits so long as it’s not obscene material. … We could probably, in many cases, be selling that time for 30 percent more than we are required to afford political candidates that same time for.”

Mr. Wharton rejected the idea of giving candidates half an hour of free air time weekly because “the vast majority of stations do a damn good job covering elections.”

“The problem with … the government-mandated free air time law is that when we offer political candidates (free) debate time, they often refuse those debates,” he said. “The reason for that is they hire these high-priced consultants who say, ‘Oh my goodness, you don’t want to get into one of these unscripted moments. We want to buy this time for negative attack ads, you don’t want to actually debate the issues with a candidate who has 5 percent name recognition.’ ”

He argued stations “go out of our way to try to improve the political discourse and often it’s the candidates themselves who work against that idea.”

Barring any changes, which he considers unlikely, people who did not like the tenor of campaign advertising this year will really hate 2012, the next presidential election year, Mr. Holman said.

“Now these outside groups have figured out how to do this. This is like a test run for 2012. So we’re going to see a phenomenal amount of spending in television commercials come 2012,” Mr. Holman said.

Contact the writer:

  • Understanding that basic education funding should/will be first, what should be the next highest priority for the General Assembly?

    • Raising The Minimum Wage (25%)
    • Legalizing Adult-Use Marijuana (24%)
    • None of the above. Something Else. (20%)
    • Economic Development (14%)
    • Higher Education (8%)
    • Public Transportation (8%)
    • Workforce Opportunities and Innovation (2%)

    Total Voters: 51

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